People had plenty to say Wednesday about a bill requiring Milwaukee Public Schools to sell vacant buildings to other educators.
An Assembly committee held a public hearing on the plan.
Under the bill, MPS would have to sell underutilized or vacant buildings to other educators, including private schools. If, after several years, none stepped forward, then the district could sell to other parties.
The author of the measure is Republican Rep. Joe Sanfelippo of West Allis. He came right out of the gate, blasting MPS for offering to sell its former Malcolm X School to a developer, when nearby St. Marcus Lutheran School wants the building.
“For various reasons MPS is icing out these choice and charter schools, even in neighborhoods where there’s strong community support for choice or charter schools and the neighbors would like to have a building that’s maybe vacant now, used,” Sanfelippo says.
Sanfelippo accused MPS of cheating taxpayers and children by not allowing a private school to buy and use the vacant building.
Republican Sen. Alberta Darling noted during the hearing, that the state gave MPS a grade of F earlier this year. She says MPS should jump at any chance to improve education for Milwaukee’s children, even if it means the district might lose enrollment.
“There are education opportunities that could be available to our students that could be higher quality situations. I think the best thing the school board and Superintendent Thornton could do is say you know what, we are having a real challenge educating in Milwaukee for a lot of valid reasons, we embrace all the help we can get and we do that with our arms spread wide,” Darling says.
Darling says the plan to force MPS to sell buildings to other educational interests has been in the works long before now.
MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton called the bill short sighted. He says the enrollment in the district is moving upward, for the first time in nearly a decade, so it must always keep an eye on future needs.
When it comes to buildings the district concludes it won’t need, Thornton says it needs flexibility. Thornton mentioned the former MPS building remodeled into senior housing this past summer.
“We were pleased that our Jackie Robinson School was transformed and put back on the tax rolls to allow folks to have good quality of life that I think is invaluable to that community,” Thornton says.
District leaders have said they want the Malcolm X property developed into a community center. Democratic Rep. Fred Kessler questioned why state government is interfering in Milwaukee decisions.
“You didn’t say this applies to Rep. Neylon’s schools in Pewaukee or Rep. Kooyenga’s schools in Brookfield or the Mukwonago school, you’ve just applied it to Milwaukee. This isn’t a statewide concern, you’re applying this to a local thing and I think that runs contrary to Wisconsin’s constitution,” Kessler says.
In Milwaukee, the city owns the buildings MPS operates, so city hall must now approve all sales. The Assembly Committee on Government Operations did not vote on the issue Wednesday, but the full Legislature is expected to act, yet this fall.